October 4, 2017
Marvel is arguably king of the comics world now. But it used to be a bottom feeder, pumping out uninspired titles that exploited popular trends — romance, monsters, whatever. Rival DC, the home of Superman and Batman, was the clear leader in the field.
That changed starting in 1961.
A comic-biz lifer named Stan Lee took a different approach when coming up with an answer to DC's popular Justice League superhero team. With the Fantastic Four, Lee began scripting characters for Marvel who had feet of clay in their thigh-high boots.
Heroes like Spider Man, Iron Man and the Hulk worried about money, getting dates and being different. They talked like neurotics and wise guys. And they were drawn in a dramatically over-the-top style, most notably by Jack Kirby. Characters throwing a punch looked like they were hurling a javelin.
Marvel's ascendency started a decades-long battle with DC. "Slugfest" author Reed Tucker calls the competing companies "the Coke and Pepsi of Spandex," and their long struggle for supremacy played out first in candy stores, then specialty comic shops and finally on the big screen.
In the early years, Marvel creators were like the cool kids to DC's stuffy, establishment types. Marvel staffers would joke that DC heroes were so blandly similar that you could swap the word balloons among them and no one would notice. Executives at DC looked down their noses at the upstarts, until they couldn't anymore because they were getting clobbered at the newsstand.
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Then they started copying their competitor.
The intervening decades were marked by the two companies poaching artists and writers from each other, swiping comic concepts and often acting petty about the whole thing. When DC revived an old character named Captain Marvel in 1972, Marvel asserted its legal rights to that name based on its own character. DC had to call its new comic book "Shazam!"
The story of Marvel's David toppling DC's Goliath is a fun one, and Tucker tells it well. He packs it with anecdotes and insights from the editors, writers, artists and assistants who were there. If the story loses its zing after a while, it's only because the early buccaneer spirit was smothered by increasing corporatization. Today, Marvel Entertainment is part of the Walt Disney Co. and DC Entertainment is part of Warner Bros.
Turns out, the greatest power comic heroes have is that they are cash cows for movie and TV producers. Even a minor character like Ant Man can get his own movie. Tucker notes that the genre took in $1.9 billion in 2016, almost 17 percent of the movie market share.
With money from a global market at stake, movies with both DC and Marvel characters tend to be based on the hero archetypes perfected decades ago: the solemn one, the cheeky one, the internally tortured one.
Sometimes, you could almost swap out script lines among the different studios' heroes and no one would notice.
Da Capo Press, 2017
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